Everyone has their own simple pleasures when travelling. Mine is seeking out traditional forms of transport and hopping on board for a ride. There’s something childishly fascinating about looking out onto a strange locale from the seat of an equally strange vehicle – whether it’s cruising through the alleys of Yangon on a sai kaa (cycle rickshaw), puttering down Siem Reap’s streets in a remorque (motorbike trailer) or clip-clopping along Manila’s crowded roads in a calesa (horse-drawn carriage). These traditional wheels bring you up close and personal to your destination with a juddering authenticity no air-conditioned taxi could ever provide.
Enjoyable as they are however, these native rides are fast losing relevance in modern cities across Asia. The past few decades have welcomed more efficient forms of mass transport. Metropolitan networks like Singapore’s MRT or Malaysia’s Rapid Bus have drastically changed the way people commute, pushing time-honoured vehicles like the trishaw off the streets and into the realm of nostalgia.
Faced with the loss of their livelihood, operators of these old-school wheels have naturally had to turn to tourism for income. In places like Penang and Melaka, trishaw drivers have learned to dress their vehicles in colourful accoutrements – often with big, battery-powered party speakers included – and cater to tourists looking for a traditional cultural experience. Prices have been ridiculously inflated, but that’s natural, too – trishaw driving is also a business, and good businessmen adapt to their customers. Right?
While I mourn the loss of traditional rides in many local contexts, I’m glad that they still have a place on other city streets. So, while Singapore’s trishaws can’t quite give me that exotic stranger-in-a-strange-land experience, I can be thankful about getting a cultural immersion every time I take cycle rickshaws like the becak in Yogyakarta, the cyclo in Phnom Penh and the trisikad in Cebu – cities where they’re still part and parcel of everyday life. Like me, perhaps locals in these places still appreciate having the wind in their hair, the company of a smiling driver and the potential for memorable encounters that no Uber ride can give.
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.